The Ending of the Buddhist Retreat OCTOBER MARKS the end of the Buddhist Lenten Season and the Mae Hong Sorn area holds a very special event each year in celebration. The 15th day of the 11th lunar month is the last day of the waxing moon and the bright, full moon signals the end of the rains retreat and the end of Lent. The Buddhist retreat began earlier in July on the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month and is an annual retreat that is an essential part of Theravada Buddhism. The three-month retreat is a traditional time for men and boys to enter the monastery and it is also the time for all monks to remain in their temples (Wat) to study the teachings of Buddha. During this period, young novices will complete their first three -months studies and meditation, while the Thai people regularly visit the temples to make merit for themselves and their families. Extra merit is gained if a son enters the monkhood. Theravada Buddhism means "The Way of Teaching" and is the Buddhism practiced in Thailand; consequently, the young monks will be studying this form as well as learning how to train themselves.
The Gingara Folk Tale of Mae Hong Sorn
Various terms are used to describe this three -month period including Buddhist Lent and Annual Retreat but more commonly, it is known as the Buddhist Rains Retreat, this classical term being used because it more accurately describes its origin. While the Buddha lived and taught in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, there was a three -month rainy season and Buddha is said to have initiated the retreat at that time. The end of the retreat is a momentous time and the Thai people will start celebrating the event at least a week before the big day. Offerings of practical gifts will be bestowed and a number of parades and processions held to mark the occasion. Awg Pahnsa, the name given to this special day is not just a signal ending the monks retreat but it also signals the end of the rainy season and a time for the Thai people to start afresh. It is the high season, with the hope and promise that the rains were sufficient to sustain the crops and provide the resources to make it through another year.
In Mae Hong Sorn, Thailand's northwest province and the border with Myanmar (Burma), celebrations at the end of the rains retreat take on an even greater meaning. Mainly the Shan people or Thai Yai, who originated from their own ancient kingdoms in the northern region of present-day Myanmar, populate this remote area of the country. A different breed from the average Siamese, these people are a hardy race with traditional, conservative values. Shy yet very civil, the Thai Yai are simply a charming people. The end of the rain retreat is celebrated in Mae Hong Sorn with a style and fervor not to be matched anywhere else in the Kingdom. The reason for this is mythological, in that the Thai Yai believe that Buddha will return to earth during this time to celebrate with the people. Much merit making will take place, beginning before dawn, as offerings are made at the temples. Visits to family and friends are high on the agenda and often, forgiveness for wrong doings is asked for. And throughout all this, lots of merriment and fun is to be had. It is a joyous time. A time for dance and song and the children can be seen walking the street in groups, singing traditional Thai Yai songs.
The celebration of the end of the retreat is much as it is in the rest of Thailand but, as mentioned, there is a mythological flavor to the Mae Hong Sorn celebrations. The Myth of Gingara has its roots in the Himalayan Mountains of northern present-day India where Gingara is a figure of power, superstition and good fortune. A mythological verse reads "And at the end of the Lenten season the Buddha told Indra that he would descend to the world of humans himself to celebrate the end of this season." (Indra of course, was the chief god of the early Hindu religion.) Although Buddhism came to Thailand by a number of different geographical routes, it is possible, due to the way the Thai Yai celebrate the event, that one of those routes was through the Shan state. The Gingara is a mythological creature that is half human and half bird and in the Mae Hong Sorn area, this creature has a female head and the body of a peacock. According to the Gingara legend, the Buddha was supposed to descend to earth during this time by a ladder made of jewels and that his intention was not just to be with the people but to be with all living creatures. To that end, three creatures were chosen as representatives at this festival. The Lion, the butterfly and the serpent and these are represented in the costume of the Gingara.
In Buddhist mythology, the Lion is a symbol of omniscient power, which comes from the Indian belief of the Lion as a representation of God. The butterfly representation is not as clear but the fact that it has wings should be considered. One folk tale concerns a being, half woman and half bird, which can move easily between earth and the heavenly Gods. Gingara could well have been derived from this figure and the butterfly then chosen to represent the winged creatures. The serpent should come as no surprise because, unlike the western world where the serpent is always a demon, in the East, it is a representation of a positive element. Serpents are seen gracing temple steps and adorning archways and buildings as a its concentric circles and rippling profile reflect the rise and fall of oceans. This belief is an integral part of the Thai Yai society and connects its routes to northern India.
The festival highlights are: a procession of the constructed Jong Para or the representation of Buddha's earthly resting place, the dance of the Gingara mythical creature, an exhibition of the cultural foundation of the ethnic Tai people (Thai Yai from Shan State in Myanmar), an exhibition illustrating the lifestyle of the hilltribe peoples, and a candle lit market. The Dhevo-Rohana Alms Giving Ceremony will be held during this festival. Contact Tourism Authority of Thailand, Northern Office, Region 1 for more information at Tel. (053) 248607.
A visit to Mae Hong Sorn during the full moon of the 11th Lunar month (falling on October 22 to November 1, 1999) will introduce you to a ceremony that is truly ancient in character, where you will witness a celebration of pure joy.